For many people in the Tahoe region, spending time exploring our natural surroundings is one of the primary reasons they live here. It’s therapy that soothes away the challenges of life. But there are lots of young people who call Tahoe home who have not had the opportunity to spend much time in nature. YEA! Camps (Youth, Ecology, and Adventure), a program of the Gateway Mountain Center in Truckee, is trying to rectify that by taking small groups of local, under-resourced youth on four-day camping experiences that include hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing.
YEA! Camps are free and hosted at front-country camping locations. In addition to giving teens the opportunity to spend time hiking in the woods and paddling on the lakes, the kids take on the responsibility of assisting in camp and on the trail by making sure everyone has water, is acting safely in regards to the use of fire, and protecting themselves from the sun. They learn what to carry and not carry and how to put up tents, are in charge of cooking and cleaning, and are taught Leave No Trace practices. In other words, not only are they learning how to recreate responsibly, but they also some of the basics of becoming an adult.
YEA! began in 2021 in South Lake Tahoe as a result of a substantial contribution from the city’s renowned outdoor adventure photographer Corey Rich and his wife, Marina. The program expanded to North Tahoe/Truckee in 2022. Corey said that “the outdoor world means so much to Marina and I and it is pivotal to who I am as a person. My love of the outdoor adventure world was born as a kid.”
When the Rich’s daughter started school, they soon realized that not every child in Tahoe has the same opportunities to be introduced to nature, so they asked the question: “How do we provide more exposure to kids who don’t have the opportunity to experience the power of being outside in wild places? That was the origin of the camps and the mission and goal was simple: Get more underserved youth outside to have meaningful, deep experiences in nature.”
YEA! Camps started with that simple goal of getting kids outside who haven’t spent much time in the outdoors, but the hope is that the joy of being in nature will spread to their friends and families as well.
“We intend to bridge the gap of wage disparity in the Tahoe communities by introducing youth to the outdoor spaces that they often did not know about in their backyards, and to leave them feeling empowered enough to bring their peers and families on hiking and camping adventures,” said Cali Fraser, program director for YEA! Camps.
Between the major forest fires of the last few years, the stress caused by Covid isolation, and the home life issues many kids in the program have experienced, participants often need help dealing with depression and anxiety. Fraser says the program is helping them deal by “building up confidence about being outdoors.” Some participants used to be scared about being outside, but after they were involved with the YEA! Program, some can’t wait to do it again.
“For those with depression or anxiety, we talk about tools we can find that will help us feel better when we are feeling low,” said Fraser.
Regarding children who have spent a lot more time looking at their phones than wandering around in the woods, “It has been a really nice experience for them working with their senses,” said Fraser. There is a focus on touching and smelling a tree, listening to birds, and enjoying being part of a quiet night looking up at the stars.
Another benefit of the YEA! Camps is that introduction to new experiences improves participants’ communication skills and brings them the opportunity to expand their group of friends. When you do things you have never done before, you acquire a new knowledge base that lets you communicate with other people who also do that activity.
As an example, Fraser said that last year they took a group to Sand Harbor. None of the 12 kids had ever been there before. As with other adventures, they loved it, and when they went back to school they could tell their fellow students that they jumped off beautiful granite boulders into the lake at Sand Harbor, just as they can tell their friends about snowboarding, paddling on Lake Tahoe, or spending the night gazing up at the stars.
“During our North Lake Tahoe pilot program, we had youth who loved camp so much that they grouped together and joined our South Lake Tahoe camps as well,” said Fraser. “We intend to continue to foster lessons and connections that youth have formed with nature, their peers, their guides, their community, and their empowered selves.”
In 2023, programs will continue throughout the school year with monthly weekend outings.
“If we can really affect and touch a few kids in our community and change their lives, that is what this program is all about,” said Corey.
The YEA! Camps rely on grants and donations from organizations like the Tahoe Fund and individuals such as the Riches. If you would like to help, contact the Gateway Mountain Center at sierraexperience.org.